State's foster care system better than most

0 | Children, SRS, Legislature

— Kansas’ foster care system appears to be as good or better than those in most states, a national expert said Tuesday.

“All states are struggling in a number of areas, but Kansas has areas of strength,” said Nina Williams Mbenge, director of children and families programs at the National Conference of State Legislatures office in Denver.

Testifying before the House Federal and State Affairs Committee, Mbenge said an ongoing federal survey of state foster care programs ranked Kansas especially high in child safety, reliance on kinship care, delivery of services to children and parents, and helping children stay out of the system after they’re released.

Mbenge stressed that while Kansas’ foster care system has considerable room for improvement, it’s better than those in most states.

So far, federal surveyors have canvassed 32 states, including Kansas.

She declined to rank the state’s performance, saying the survey is not yet complete and is not designed to pit one state’s performance against another’s.

The Kansas portion of the survey is on the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services' Web site.

Mbenge’s comments marked the opening of four days of committee hearings on child welfare issues.

Led by Rep. Mike Kiegerl, R-Olathe, the committee’s conservative members, said they doubted and regretted the 1996 decision to privatize most of the state’s child welfare responsibilities.

Kiegerl called the committee’s attention to a 2008 Legislative Division of Post Audit report that listed the five regional contractors’ executive salaries. In 2006, two of the five CEOs were paid more than $225,000 a year; three were paid more than $150,000.

“I see these people are all making handsome salaries. Very rich packages,” Kiegerl said. “I have to wonder what the value is that the state is getting for the money it’s spending.”

Kiegerl, whose daughter is an attorney who often represents parents whose children are in foster care, said he thought children are often removed from their families without good cause.

Rep. Forrest Knox, R-Altoona, said he was interested in exploring the benefits of putting counties – rather than SRS – in charge of foster care.

The committee’s chairman, Rep. Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls, reminded members that prior to privatization, the state-run system was “dismal in its performance; at times we didn’t know where the children in our care were and we had a pretty unfortunate death.”

The system’s troubles caused Rene Netherton, a Topeka guardian ad litum attorney, to sue the state. The lawsuit was later taken over by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The lawsuit was settled, he said, after conditions improved.

“I think anybody who’s been involved in this has to admit that compared to where we were,” Neufeld said, “this (privatization) has been a success story.”

Afterward, Neufeld, a key player in the privatization initiative, said he wasn’t interested in scrapping the foster care system.

“I think it’s time we step up to the next level,” he told KHI News Service. “There are some things we can do. I’m hoping to get a pilot project going that gets families more involved in the court proceedings. Right now, they just go in and plead guilty to everything because their court-appointed attorneys are telling them, ‘Just lay down because you’re going to get run over anyway.’”

Several parents whose children are in foster care have called or written legislators, saying their rights had been abused.

“We need to change that,” Neufeld said. “We need to improve the system. There needs to be a lot more communication than there is now.”

The committee is expected to hear testimony Wednesday from judges, attorneys, volunteers, and other concerned members of the public.